Democracy Dies in Darkness

Local | Perspective

‘I worry if I get angry at work, I will confirm a stereotype’ — and other statements that divide us

July 7, 2018 at 5:26 PM

To start talking about how we can better come together as a community, we first have to understand what divides us. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

In my first weeks of college, we played a game. It was required of all freshmen and aimed to show us how we were suddenly living with people who were both different from us and yet the same.

I’m sure it has been played on other campuses, and even at some workplaces, with the same optimistic goal of creating a sense of community.

It was called, “Crossing the line.”

The rules were simple. Everyone stood on the same side of the room and listened as a moderator uttered sentences. If you heard a statement that applied to your life, you simply stepped across a strip of tape that had been placed on the ground.

Some sentences caused most of the crowd to move as one. I am far from home.

Others caused a quiet shuffle of one or two pairs of feet. I am the first person in my family to attend college.

During the game, I stood with the crowd for most of the questions and twice with only one other student. No conversations were allowed while we played and so there was no explaining to my dormmates, people I barely knew at the time, why I had taken those solo steps. But afterward, as we all walked back to our rooms, one person asked me for the backstories. He lived down the hall and we couldn’t have been more different in background or personality. He soon became one of my closest friends. He is now my husband.

In the years since we graduated, he hasn’t mentioned that game, and I’m guessing many of our classmates haven’t given it much thought either.

But I recall being struck by how easily a few statements caused me to stand out when I most wanted to blend in, and I have thought about the game often over the years in the context of race and class. Despite its uncomfortable moments, it started a meaningful conversation, and that seems especially relevant now, at a time when discussions about identity have become so fraught with misunderstanding that white people have to fear being labeled racist if they ask the wrong questions and black people have to worry about strangers calling the police on them for doing nothing more than barbecuing or golfing or falling asleep in a common area of a dormitory.

We have reached a point in this country where race relations are so tense that Starbucks has to teach us how to get along. Think about the ridiculousness of that reality. And yet, here we are, counting on the latte luminary to lead us to a better place.

Related: [Starbucks’s bias training finally happened. Here’s what it looked like.]

This past week, a month after the company closed 8,000 stores to give 175,000 of its employees racial-bias training, two of the curriculum’s advisers released an independent report outlining how the coffee corporation and other companies could achieve a “full-scale racial equity overhaul.”

The importance of that goal was outlined in the report’s 30 pages, but it was also made clear by two events that occurred in the days before and after the report’s release. Police were called to a house outside of Cleveland where a ­12-year-old boy was mowing the lawn and to an Oregon neighborhood where a black lawmaker was knocking on the doors of her constituents. Suddenly #MowingWhileBlack and #CampaigningWhileBlack joined the long list of #LivingWhileBlack outrage that began with #SittingWhileBlack. That hashtag arose after a Starbucks employee in Philadelphia called the police on two black men who sat at a table without ordering. Afterward, the company apologized, changed several policies and trained its employees in what it described as a “first step.”

The report that came out this week is not going to lead to any immediate major changes. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking otherwise. But it advances the conversation on how people of color are treated in public places and it is an important acknowledgment of a subtle aspect of racism that is hard to explain. It is not the familiar image of a person spitting hatred in a stranger’s face. It is the quieter, harder-to-detect unconscious bias that leaves people of color knowing that no matter what they achieve in life, and how integrated they feel with their neighbors and co-workers, they can be left standing in an instant on the lonely side of a line.

Related: [Starbucks apologizes to customer who had a racial slur written on his cup]

The truth is that for many people of color, the game “Crossing the line” never stops. The questions just change as people get older.

I realized this when I stood in front of a cashier at a department store, with my license in hand, and my not-yet-husband asked what I was doing. Apparently, he had never been asked for his ID when using a credit card.

More recently, I interviewed a black woman and she described her shock the first time she saw her white husband get pulled over for a routine traffic violation and not turn down the radio as the officer approached.

If we really want to understand one another better — and ideally reach a point where no one calls the police on someone based on skin color — maybe it’s time we stop throwing insults and start playing a game. Because to start talking about how we can better come together as a community, we first have to understand what divides us — and it’s not always obvious.

Think about each statement below and ask yourself whether your feet would stay securely planted or cross the line.

I walk into my doctor’s office and quickly find a way to slip in details from my résumé because I worry I might not get the appropriate level of respect or treatment otherwise.

I question whether my child’s punishment was a result of what she did or who she is.

Teachers have difficulty pronouncing my child’s name so they often give her a new one.

My co-workers would be surprised to hear me speak to my hometown friends because of code-switching.

I worry that if I get angry at work, I will confirm a stereotype.

I have bought items at a store because I didn’t want to appear as if I couldn’t afford them.

When moving into a new neighborhood, I introduce my child to all the neighbors so they don’t get alarmed and call the police if he walks home at night.

I have sat on a panel and looked around the stage to see no one else with my racial background.

I worry that if my child plays with a water gun, he could get shot by a real one.

The list could go on. But I learned long ago that for the game to work, you can’t just play it; you also have to talk about it. So you tell me what statements are important to add.

Read More:

Why Washington is one of the worst places to be black and pregnant

The column I won’t write because of a troll with a gun

This 87-year-old D.C. woman just made it easier for you to keep your independence

‘I really miss my mom’: What becomes of a 5-year-old in Maryland and the other separated children now?

Theresa Vargas is a local columnist for The Washington Post. Before coming to The Post, she worked at Newsday in New York. She has degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University School of Journalism.

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